The R-rated studio sex comedy. Once a staple of the American film industry, this genre has since faded into semi-obscurity following a mixture of oversaturation (did we really need three Hangover (2009-2013) films?) and Gen Z finding their own comedic outlet in streaming shows and on social media. Frankly, I also somewhat attribute this to the idea that Gen Z, while on paper the most progressive generation to date, can sometimes hold very puritanical views about sexual content in their movies and TV, which has led to a sharp decline in this type of comedy being made for young people. Every five seconds I feel like I see a new Twitter thread or TikTok video about how no film ever needs to have sex scenes as they deem them “unnecessary” or that any show that features inherently graphic content is immediately “exploitative” (The Idol (2023) is very very bad, but it’s not because of its sexual content, that shocking you is part of the point). I’m finding this approach to actually be very regressive when it comes to destigmatizing sexuality as a whole in society, and I’m finding many starting to really recognize how such restrictive thinking keeps us from having fun as audiences. I don’t think that something like the Jennifer Lawrence-backed No Hard Feelings (2023 would’ve had the same success it did in theaters its opening weekend if there wasn’t a market for wanting to relax and laugh at celebrities doing dirty shit, and I don’t think something as crass and filthy as Joy Ride would exist without that desire either.
Audrey Sullivan (Ashley Park) is a powerful 29-year-old Chinese-American lawyer adopted by white parents at birth still living in her predominantly white hometown alongside her lifelong best friend, Lolo (Sherry Cola), the only other Asian child in her small town growing up. Looking to make partner at her firm, Audrey goes to Beijing to close a partnership deal with a powerful Chinese firm, taking Lolo with her as her translator. Joined by Lolo’s awkward cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), and catching up with Audrey’s college roommate, Kat (Academy Award-nominee [and should-be winner] Stephanie Hsu), now a major soap opera star in China, the girls embark on a chaotic, sex-crazed, drug-fueled, potentially life-ruining journey of self-discovery when Lolo convinces Audrey to seek out her birth mother after nearly three decades.
Joy Ride is easily the funniest R-rated comedy I’ve seen since Girls Trip (2017), which in turn was the funniest comedy since Bridesmaids (2011), while also finding moments of jarring emotion that frankly stopped me in my tracks in how genuinely heart-wrenching and tragic it could become mere minutes after watching an Academy Award-nominated actress shove eight bags of cocaine up her butt on a train. It’s a true multitude of tones that writers Teresa Hsiao and Cherry Chevaravatdumrong, veterans of the Seth McFarlane animation machine at FOX, as well as director Adele Lim, balance wonderfully.
But dear god, when Joy Ride is funny, it’s raucously hysterical. There’s a nice mixture of both sharp wit and a true shamelessness in going for the basest, nastiest angle possible. Cocaine up the butt, vomit on the face, concussion-inducing threesomes, vagina tattoos, etc. There isn’t a part of an R-rating that Joy Ride won’t venture to the extremes of, and I think that’s beautiful.
These tonal shifts between extremely crude comedy and touching moments of heart at the center of one’s own identity is only pulled off so seamlessly from how perfectly cast the film is. While Park (Emily in Paris), from a comedic standpoint, is certainly more of the straight man to the rest of the personalities surrounding her, she maintains a strong emotional center to the film. Cola (Good Trouble) and Hsu’s (Everything Everywhere All at Once) chemistry as the polar opposite “best friends” of Audrey bickering at every turn is absolutely unmatched. Yet, it’s the comedic stylings of Wu as the awkward, terminally online K-Pop stan Deadeye that really makes Joy Ride so special. Wu has the same level of scene-stealing presence that Melissa McCarthy had in Bridesmaids, or Tiffany Haddish had in Girls Trip; that indescribable sense of stardom that I hope the industry treats well and doesn’t bog down in sub-par follow-up content, because the naïve, sometimes pitiful, but never anything but purely lovable Deadeye provides Wu with the true breakout performance of 2023 so far.
There’s really nothing about Joy Ride that doesn’t warm my cold little heart which desperately misses getting films like this every other month in theaters. Like every comedy, not every joke hits the bullseye every time, but the incredibly game cast and steady, if relatively conventional, direction push the film past the finish line with flying colors. Not merely looking to settle for being a good comedy, Joy Ride succeeds wonderfully in being a touching comedy about the joys and pains of self-discovery, and the reasons we find comfort in sometimes harmful, non-confrontational shelter. It’s Girls Trip and Return to Seoul (2002), and yes, the emotional resonance of the latter isn’t sacrificed for the sake of a good dick joke. Those things can, and should, coexist beautifully.
In theaters July 7th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Lionsgate Joy Ride website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.